Land of Smiles Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Gilt Edge Media
Written and Directed by Bradley Stryker
2017, 86 minutes, Rated 18
DVD released on May 1st, 2017
Alexandra Turshen as Abby
Keenan Henson as Ben
Caitlin Stryker as Jewel
Bradley Stryker as Dale
Having split from her cheating boyfriend, straight-laced Abby follows her friend on an impromptu backpacking trip across Thailand, the titular land of smiles. But when she arrives, her pal is nowhere to be seen, save for snippets of video and creepy photos sent to her e-mail. How would Taken have gone if Liam Neeson hadn’t been around to save the day? Such an idea informs Land of Smiles, a slick, sick Thailand ‘em up in which the power of friendship is pit against a loon in a yellow raincoat and a rubber clown mask. Neeson would probably have spent less time supping cocktails, but at least it’s not sex traffickers again.
First-time director Bradley Stryker’s crisp, often gorgeous horror thriller closely follows a template set by the ‘greats’: like Hostel, Wolf Creek and so many before it, the first half hour is almost all partying and vacation shots of Thailand, letting the beautiful scenery and bikini shots (fun, but not gratuitous) do all of the heavy lifting. While her fellow travellers are convinced that the hostage videos Abby receives are all hoaxes, the lot of them are lured off the beaten track to where the murderclown and his stupid yellow mac and even stupider mask are waiting, with not-so-stupid power tools in the wings.
Stryker uses his occasional snippets of found footage to good effect, keeping things interesting with plenty of variety in the shots and scenery, cutting in clips of hostage Penny whenever things threaten to get too boring. Even before we get to Thailand the film looks good, with cute Edgar Wright-style foreshadowing of what is to come scattered throughout. That tension, unfortunately, is pissed down the drain as soon as we get a good look at the film’s villain, a not-remotely scary prat who we’re expected to take seriously simply because he’s wearing a clown mask. And not even a good one.
His master plan leaves much to be desired too, using his torture videos to blackmail Abby into, uh, drinking more beers and going bar-hopping (not-coincidentally, The Beach and The Game are mentioned by name in the script). This makes for an intriguing mystery, but not always an interesting movie – at times, it’s a lot like watching videos of an uninteresting acquaintance’s holiday in a country where they were too chicken to do any of the fun stuff. It’s not even as edgy or scary as the real Thailand, which has streets and bar shows which genuinely, actually terrify me far more than a tit in a cheap rubber mask ever could.
While the characters aren’t much to write postcards about, they do the job. Its female lead is thinly-drawn but strong, given a sympathetic face in Alexandra Turshen. Keenan Henson and Caitlyn Stryker do fine as Abby’s hippy buddies, even if the former is essentially just there as a plot device to keep Abby from calling the police. Fair play, the writing almost manages to hide or excuse the magnificent brainlessness displayed by each and every one of the characters. There are some Olympic level plot gymnastics at play here but if, like Abby, you don’t stop to think about it, you and Land of Smiles should get along just fine. Writer and director (Bradley) Stryker shows up as Australian beach bum Dale too, stealing the show in his few appearances here and there.
And eventually, the darkness. The found footage pays off (with a Blair Witch homage so snotty it crosses over into Scary Movie territory, and then a massive Saw rip-off too) and the ending is genuinely great, but getting there is a bit of a slog. Even the pretty visuals can’t help but wear thin eventually - let down by a plot so meandering that it has the characters stopping to grab a beer every five minutes (seriously, they’re swigging them right up until ten minutes before the end of the movie). For all its promise, Land of Smiles never really gets going. It looks great and has a genuinely interesting story, but ultimately, it’s too laid-back for its own good.